A Place to Bury Strangers have been blasting speakers with their breed of doomy noise rock for several years now, having recently gained greater attention on the strength of their self-titled 2007 debut album – a collection of mostly preliminary or demo recordings that few were supposed to hear. The band has toured extensively since, and have even joined MGMT and Nine Inch Nails on respective tours. I met the band – singer/guitarist Oliver Ackermann, bassist Jono MOFO and drummer Jay Space – at Death By Audio, the custom guitar effects pedal company founded by Ackermann, which is perhaps the only place that can be responsible for crafting most of the more hair-raising sounds this band can conjure…
Did the success of the first album and the new attention to the band come about quickly?
Oliver: Oh yeah, I had no expectations whatsoever. We had an offer [from label Killer Pimp] to put it out for nothing. Before that, we would go through the ridiculous labor of burning CDs and making all the artwork just to sell them for $3 at shows.
Jono: I said, ‘Let’s just go for it.’ I thought it’d be good so we at least had something out there that we could sell and that didn’t cost us anything.
Oliver: I always thought we would just re-record everything later, so we limited it to 500 copies. I would talk to people who had friends in the music industry and it seemed like we had to have the right producer or studio… I’ve been D.I.Y. for so long now, I almost felt like giving up; like, “If that’s what it takes to make a band…” But people really liked it, and it gave us great confidence in that what we were doing wasn’t worthless.
After the first album, you guys started touring a lot more. Had you been playing regularly before then?
Oliver: Yeah, I used to say ‘Yes’ to every show and these guys would get so pissed [points to Jono and Jay]. There was a lot of ‘Do we have to play at Lit Lounge again?’ We’d play out on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday…
Jono: Then you try to get friends and people to come to the shows and they’re always, “You’re playing again?”
Did you run into more issues with the sheer volume of your sound at venues the more you played and toured?
Oliver: It’s been a long road of getting kicked out of clubs, getting threatened by the sound guys, blowing out lots of other people’s amps…
Jay: A lot of teenage girls doing this [makes painful face while plugging ears]
How has audience reaction changed the more you’ve played out? And how did your sound go over on bigger tours with Nine Inch Nails and MGMT?
Oliver: I’ve noticed the crowd spans a range of ages. There are people that were maybe into bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain a while ago that hear that in us… I guess if the moms are into us, it can’t hurt. [laughs] But it runs the gamut. It’s cool that there are people still into this type of music. The NIN tour was crazy positive every night… But I remember this one guy who had his middle finger up at us for most of our set, so I stared him down until it got really awkward. He put it down, then eventually started moving his head to the music…
Jay: My favorite was getting an E-mail from someone where the subject said “You’re So Awesome,” then we open it up and it’s an attack. “You guys suck … who wants to listen to 45 minutes of feedback!?”
Has all the touring improved the band on a musical level?
Oliver: It made us a lot tighter and created more intensity in the band, so now we’re constantly challenging each other.
Jay: I’ve been pushed to a whole other level of my drumming … The first album, a lot of it is drum machines, but I end up playing the parts live anyway.
Jono: He’s a live machine.
The new album, Exploding Head, boasts a greater sense of melody and tighter structures amidst the noise. At their core, some songs sound like they could be pop. Was there intent to go that way with this album?
Oliver: We were trying to make what we think is a good album from start to finish. We were focused on getting a more hi-fi sound; it’s an experiment, I guess. If it doesn’t work, maybe we’ll go back to something more lo-fi. But I learn new recording and mixing techniques almost every day, so this album is sort of a culmination of that up to this point. And I like pop, too. I’m up for inspiration from anywhere if it sounds good … and those elements can be different in every song; maybe it’s the bass in one or the melody in another.
Your music is defined to a large degree by experimentation with sounds and guitar effects; is that a major and painstaking process when writing and recording?
Oliver: I like to experiment with technology not familiar to me to see what will happen… But it takes some hard work. You always think something could sound better, so it’s a never-ending search.
Jay: Oliver and I have spent hours just going through electronic drum sounds trying to get the right one. We’d find one, record the song and then realize listening back that it’s not right at all, and we’d have to start over again.
Jono: It’s always more fun to use fucked up sounds than normal ones, but sometimes you have to know when to reign it in if it’s more appropriate for the song. Sometimes a clean guitar could actually be best.
Oliver, you’re in the business of creating effect pedals. Are much of your set-ups custom built? Ever have problems with them while on the road and be stuck in a hard place?
Oliver: Well I make ‘em, so they never fail! [laughs] We’re open to using anything, really. We’ve had equipment break on tour, and then had to borrow gear from other bands. Sometimes you’ve got to think quickly to make things happen out there. We do have this electronic drum module that we built, and it does sort of look like a big bomb, so customs agents always carelessly unscrew it and look around inside to check it out. It’s pretty delicate and there’s not much room to breathe in there, so they’ve broken it a few times.
Has it ever been a concern to not let the noise and loudness appear gimmicky?
Jono: If it’s ever just experimental noise over and over again then yeah, it would get old, but there’s more to it than that…
Oliver: There’s definitely a purpose – there must constantly be one to keep things exciting. But I mean, if I get tired of it, or the band gets tired of it, then fuck it. As long as I’m creating music for myself, or we’re making music that we’re into, that’s what’s important.
A Place to Bury Strangers’ killer new album Exploding Head is released Oct. 6 on Mute, and the band will play at the Bowery Ballroom Oct. 29.